Nature of Unpaid Labour

The Nature of Unpaid Labour

The term “unpaid labour” is self-explanatory; but what constitutes unpaid labour and its value (or lack thereof) are the subject of substantial debate. Because the U.N.’s System of National Accounts defines “work” as having to do with an exchange of cash, a large body of work done by volunteers, family members, and friends is overlooked.  To put things in perspective, unpaid labour is valued at approximately one third of the value of Canada’s entire GDP.

Statistics Canada lists a fairly limited (though useful) set of categories of unpaid labour:

  • House and yard work
  • Care of children
  • Care and assistance to seniors


Marilyn Waring, a prominent economist, politician and author, breaks unpaid labour into four main categories:

  • Subsistence agriculture
  • Household production
  • Volunteer and community work
  • Informal economy

This definition is more inclusive but may need some explanation.

**Subsistence agriculture refers to the production of food for the use of those within a household. When a surplus is produced and agricultural goods enter the cash economy, this is no longer considered subsistence agriculture.

**Household production refers to the production of goods and/or services by members of a household for that household. This includes meal preparation, laundry, child and elder care, and cleaning.

**Volunteer and community work represents a huge body of labour done by of Canadians. The National Survey of Giving, Volunteering, and Participating (established after the 1996 census recognized unpaid labour for the first time) cites a figure of 1.11 billion hours of labour contributed by Canadian volunteers between November of 1996 and October of 1997. These volunteer activities encompass a wide range of areas, from organizing events and raising funds to teaching, coaching, and providing care and support to others. [Read the factsheet here]

**Informal economy is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “unregulated commercial activity which takes place outside the official or mainstream economy.” This includes work done by people who are self-employed, or who work on a casual basis. Babysitting and taking in boarders are good examples of informal economic activities. While these activities may not be strictly “unpaid”, they are not visible in the mainstream economic system.


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